Children of the Corn (1984)
And a child shall lead them...
Year of Release: 1984
Running Time: 92 minutes (1:32)
Director: Fritz Kiersch
Peter Horton ... Burt
Linda Hamilton ... Vicky
John Franklin ... Isaac
Courtney Gains ... Malachai
Robby Kiger ... Job
Anne Marie McEvoy ... Sarah
R.G. Armstrong ... Diehl
Julie Maddalena ... Rachel
John Philbin ... Amos
Jonas Marlowe ... Joseph
It began on a quiet Sunday in Gatlin, Nebraska. That was the day the children slaughtered all the grownups. Isaac, the boy preacher, told them that He Who Walks Behind the Rows was pleased, and three years later the children still follow Isaac and his evil teenage disciple, Malachai. When a young couple traveling cross-country accidentally drive into Gatlin, they begin to discover the town's terrible secrets. However, what they don't realize is that they have become part of the children's bloody mission: a mission that cannot be fulfilled until the two intruders are dead.
Children of the Corn, remindin' us that it don't matter if you're raised Catholic or Ethanolic 'cause either way the higher-ups're gonna lose interest in ya the moment you reach adulthood.
And speakin' of excommunication, I been quarantined the past week and I know everybody says it usually takes twice that to really shake this crap, but after five or six days of eatin' nothin' but Impossible Lutefisk or whatever colonary catastrophe Mrs. Sadie dropped off on the doorstep that day, I finally said 'the hell with it' and went to the Jiffy Mart this mornin' for some deep fried supplies - only to be denied entry.
I'll tell ya this much - soon as I figure out who my congressman is I'ma start lightin' fires under hineys until somethin' gets done about this 'cause I'm tired of watchin' my freedoms go by the wayside just to appease a buncha upright nasal Nazis; the way they act you'd think I was the first guy to ever get juiced by a skunk or somethin'.
It's not like I've been insensitive to their dainty little constitutions or anything, 'cause I increased my weekly hygiene regimen by a factor of two and even broke out that special "cruelty free" soap Mrs. Sadie gave me for Christmas back in '09, but all that did was make me smell like a homosexual skunk lookin' for some action at a bar called "The Anal Gland."
I'll tell ya somethin' else, too - I coulda been a hardass about it. I coulda pressed my 12-gauge up to the lump movin' around in my dryer hose and splattered Pepe Le Pew all over the water heater or pumped Axe body spray in there till he fell over dead like a limousine driver on prom night, but I chose life.
"You wah me 'uh wah?" Billy asked, diggin' around in his ear to remove any obstruction that might be causin' fuzzy reception.
"Just pick up the dryer and set it down on the patio," I repeated as casually as possible, hopin' to avoid any motivational entanglements.
"Ahwigh', buh firf you gah'get 'ah fhunk owuh veow," he smirked.
"You mean to tell me you just stood here and watched a skunk go rootin' around in my dryer hose?!" I asked incredulously.
"He've beh ih 'ere befow," he shrugged.
"And what makes you say that, Marlin Jerkins?" I demanded.
"Wheh he came 'ow he dih'n have any lin' on 'im," he reasoned.
"He came out?!" I howled, startlin' Apollo awake from his afternoon nap.
"Uh huh. Look' like he wuv dwaggin' a leav agweemen'," he chuckled.
"Yeah, well, I hope he's got a good lawyer," I said as I crept up and jammed half a pool noodle inside the open end of the hose.
"Yeow fpovda give 'im firdy dayv no'ice," he chided.
"Would you help me get this thing outta here?!" I called from the back porch, having long lost interest in discussing the housing rights of squatting rodents.
"Fug no," he replied, parkin' his ass in a lawn chair plainly not equipped to accommodate his size.
"Look, it's prolly just Stetson run away from home. Fannie had his scent glands removed, he's perfectly harmless," I asserted.
This got Billy to uncross his arms and finally take my request seriously.
"Bet she'd be pretty grateful to whoever brought 'im home," I suggested, reinforcing what Billy was obviously already thinkin'.
"Move," he commanded, freein' himself from the lawn chair's grasp and performin' a few half-assed limbering-up exercises.
I'da preferred he hadn't shattered my light fixture with the timer dial, but he hefted it out onto the lawn while I kept the float noodle securely lodged in the hose, and once that was done the actual eviction was really just a formality.
"How you gon' get 'im owa vere?" he asked.
"With nonviolent persuasion," I assured 'im, noting his concern.
I'd plotted out the final stage of the plan carefully and determined that the simplest solution was to stick my old GE 3-5285A cassette deck inside the dryer and blast the furry freeloader out with music since that usually works when the FBI does it, and I figured if Nancy Sinatra was powerful enough to break Noriega there's no way a skunk could withstand the might of ABBA. Actually, I wanted to go download a copy of Roseanne singin' the national anthem but Billy vetoed that on the basis that he wouldn't be able to claim a reward if Stetson chewed through his own jugular vein.
Anyway, I pushed the little booger up next to the machine end of the hose, removed the noodle, stuffed Shankles' pet carrier over the open end, and cranked the radio dial up to the "Permanent Hearing Loss" setting, and four seconds later Stetson came shootin' outta there like a roman candle - no muss, no fuss. There was just one problem.
"'at aihn' him," Billy claimed.
"Oh come on, it's gotta be. No way it wouldna sprayed everywhere after a scare like that," I insisted.
"I'm fellin' you, ih aihn him," he persisted.
"Horse hockey. I'd recognize those beady little eyes any--"
In hindsight I guess I prolly shoulda just called Fannie to ask if 'er skunk was missin' instead of pickin' up the carrier and goin' nose to nose with its occupant, but before the world went dark I did notice that the supposed Stetson had carried a kit outta there as she bolted, and apparently, gettin' that close to it increased the strain on our already tenuous relationship.
Billy fished two more little ones outta the dryer hose and dropped all the kits and their mama out by Cowpie Creek, but I'm prolly gonna be stuck in the house another coupla weeks and strangely enough, unemployment insurance doesn't seem to cover acts of skunk, so if anyone has some leftovers they're thinkin' about throwin' out this week I'd appreciate it if you dropped 'em on my porch instead. Honestly, after about the sixth day ya hardly notice the smell anymore, but I'm gettin' tired of arguin' with people about it so I guess I'll just hang around the house to avoid jail time on sensory assault charges.
The upside is nobody can stand to come inside for more'n about 12 seconds so I've been able to squeeze in about nine flicks a day free of interruptions this past week, and I figured since we're comin' up on spooky season it was about time to dig into the classics for all the pitiful tourists out there who haven't figured out that these movies play just as good without the presence of pumpkin spice Doritos. 'Course Children of the Corn's become one of those series where you can license the sequel rights for $20 and a "gently used" Penthouse so this's the only time we're gonna be talkin' CotC durin' Halloween season, but it's still probably the best of the Stephen King adaptations where somebody with a zillionth of Steve's talent decided he didn't know what he was doin' and hadda go fix the story's "problems." Fortunately the premise is good enough to withstand all the "helpin'" those studio folks did, and to prove it I've collected a few of the film's finer points to help assuage the concerns of everyone out there whose Executive Producer Alarms just went off. First, never enter into an agreement with anyone who believes that makin' crossies behind their back invalidates the terms of your contract. Second, Mormons have a passive resistance to poisoned coffee. And third, anyone with the power of persuasion required to sell a vegetable-based religion to preteens poses a greater threat to mankind than nuclear war and TikTok combined.
The movie begins three years ago in America's cornhole where church is lettin' out and all the congregants're filin' into a diner to wash the taste of Jesus' buttcheeks outta their mouths. Unfortunately, about that time the Pope of the pint-sized cornhusker cult (Isaac) shows up and signals for the teenage waitress to spike the coffee pot with decaf until everyone starts grabbin' their throats like somebody invited Michael Bolton to host Headbanger's Ball, at which point he sends his dermatologically disadvantaged death squad in to slash the throats of all the Mormons and shove the short order cook's hand in the roast beef slicer. After that they go door-to-door killin' all the Atheists, Jews, and everybody else who was already goin' to Hell anyway, and start lightin' TV set bonfires like Amish Nazis to wash away the stench of progress and express their displeasure with the way they're depicted on Hee Haw. Next thing it's three years later, and Linda Hamilton's slummin' with this corn pone med student who'd rather drive through Nebraska than plow 'er field (Burt), but unbeknownst to them, one of the kids from The Town that Dreaded Sunscreen chooses this moment to make a run for civilization so he can meet Ronald McDonald before he dies, only he ends up gettin' caught by this other kid that looks like Alfred E. Neuman went off the grid (Malachai) who shucks his neck down to the jugular and shoves 'im out into traffic. 'Course Linda and Burt're tryna figure out which rectangle they're drivin' through on the map and so they don't see the kid until they've already squashed 'im into Cream of Wheat, but upon closer examination Burt's extensive medical trainin' tells him that it prolly wasn't his hood ornament that sliced the kid's throat so they stuff the body in the truck between the spare and the washer fluid and drive off in search of the closest sani-dump station.
Meanwhile, these two rebel siblins (Job and Sarah) are hidin' out in their parents' old house playin' Monopoly so they won't hafta churn creamed corn all day, only Malachai finds 'em and takes 'em to Isaac to collect the bounty on their heretical heads and it's lookin' like excommunication city but Isaac notices the drawins Sarah's been makin' and realizes she's got precognitive Crayola powers and tells Malachai to turn 'em loose and to close his mouth before the world falls in. While that's goin' on, Linda and Burt pull into R.G. Armstrong's service station but he just tells 'em to get back in their car and drive until they find a Stuckey's or an Indian casino 'cause the kids're only lettin' 'im live so they'll have access to his gas pump and somebody who can get cans down off the top shelf. 'Course when Malachai finds out the adults stopped there he sneaks over and sends R.G.'s dog to the big hubcap factory in the sky and sticks its bloody bandana right on toppa R.G's radiator hose and that gets 'im so P.O.'d that he goes barnstormin' for maladjusted moppets and the kids end up eatin' his Wheaties. Then Isaac gathers everyone together at the site of the holy crop circle and tells everyone that He Who Walks Behind the Rows came to him in a dream and told 'im that outsiders would lay siege to their land and force them to abandon the ways of the corn and learn critical rice theory unless they band together and sacrifice 'em to the Monsanto Board of Directors to prove their loyalty. Elsewhere, Linda and Burt've been drivin' around the corn maze for about six hours tryna find the interstate turn off and so they finally give up and decide to head into town to find an air freshener to help combat the ripening corpse in their trunk, only the place looks like its gold strike dried up and everybody moved to Des Moines to open up Starbucks franchises. Eventually they find Sarah up in 'er bedroom Nostradamizin' more of 'er prepubescent prophecies on construction paper, but when Burt goes to look around town Malachai and his alfalfa sprouts surround the house and haul Linda off to meet the Wicker Vicar.
Burt is P.O.'d, and when the church bells begin to chime he hauls butt over there and finds its congregants about to drink the blood of this sacramental swine (Amos) who's turnin' 19 and hasta take one for the team 'cause their god from the hallowed fallow hath decreed that Logan's Run was way too generous when it came time to separate the wheat from the chaff. Things get a teensy bit tense when Burt starts questionin' their interpretation of the scriptures, and like most reasonable, self-assured believers, they end up stabbin' 'im with a ceremonial dagger and chasin' 'im all over God's country till Job finds 'im and takes 'im down into an old Capitalist safehouse built to withstand the Communist invasion where they can hide out until the crusade blows over. In the meantime, cracks have begun to develop between members of the council of learned tykes, and after a brief scuffle, Malachai makes like Atiller the Hun, seizes control of the operation, and orders his army of cornstalkers to strap Isaac to a cropsifix so he, Amos, and Linda can all get spiritually swathered in one fell swoop. 'Course Burt knows that he hasta get Linda outta there or else we're gonna be overrun by Terminators, but he hangs back in the rear with the ears a minute while a demonic Bugs Bunny plows around under the soil till it finds Amos and turns 'im into fertilizer and slowly crawls up Isaac's cross where it proceeds to consume his cult of personality while he shrieks like a woman. While everybody's distracted, Burt frees Linda and points 'er toward the barn and tries deprogrammin' the kids, only Malachai jumps 'im and Burt hasta slap 'im around like he's tryin' out Ike Turner's Guide to Speed Dating and things really start goin' to pot when Isaac's possessed husk stands up and begins to question his flock's devotion to their deity. This's about as far as I wanna go 'cause it's not every day you get to watch a regular guy try to figure out how to destroy a god and I don't wanna spoil that, but you're gonna wanna see for yourselves 'cause the pyrotechnics crew is about to get a little carried away.
Alrighty, well, it just wouldn't be an early Stephen King adaptation if the script wasn't neutered by the high sheriffs, would it? These days King requires studios to give him final approval over screenwriters, directors, and the principal cast, but he didn't really have that kinda stroke back in '84, and consequently, in some of the earliest film adaptations of his stories anything considered too grim for general consumption tended to get revised to better accommodate the sensibilities of the American movie-going public. King actually wrote the first draft of the screenplay, expanding upon the stort story he'd written years before only to have it rejected by studio executives on the basis that it took too long to get going and carried over the original downer ending, and from my perspective, the first half of that criticism is valid while the second is hot garbage. It was even suggested that King didn't fully understand the differences between the two media, and while that's true in the sense that King was so coked up at the time he may not've understood the difference between forks and spoons - he was ahead of his time in terms of having the guts to write a conclusion that doesn't end happily ever after. The idea that a movie's ending hasta be happy or at least middling was nonsense then, and as we've seen pretty regularly since the turn of the century - it's nonsense now.
Admittedly, there were flicks with depressing endings before 1984, but resistance was still stiff, particularly among medium budget movies where there were concerns about its investors gettin' their money back, and as with Cujo the year before, they decided to swap out the conclusion for a more socially palatable one. Coincidentally, or perhaps not (I'm just spitballing here), shortly before filming began King would raise the fee required to attach his name to the project, and I can't help but wonder if that was because they opted to change so many things in ways he may not have cared for. He has since stated that he liked the movie alright, but you still have to marvel at the level of doublethink necessary for a studio to both acknowledge his popularity to the point of seeking out his work for a film adaptation, while simultaneously insisting they know better and demanding changes to important plot points. Regardless, the studio did agree to pay King's increased premium, but only from the funds which had previously been allotted for the flick's budget, and thus, the budget shrunk from a healthy 1.3 million down to $800,000 - forcing the removal of a few special effects sequences and requiring adjustments to a couple of the more impactful scenes. I mention all this not to make excuses for the finished product because it still turned out pretty well, but rather, to shine a light on some of the behind-the-scenes squabbling that may have reduced it from a potentially excellent flick to one that was merely good. Or maybe I'm just talkin' outta my ass and King's script woulda resulted in another Maximum Overdrive, it's impossible to know. But I tend to give Steve the benefit of the doubt, and so I'm gonna continue to piss and moan about it until I kick the bucket, as is my right.
In any event, we prolly oughta take a look at some of the flick's objective qualities instead of just ramblin' over hearsay, so what say we make like Mike Tyson and take a bite outta one of these ears to see just how much fertilizer taste carried over to the finished product. The plot, or more specifically, the premise, is excellent, and although you could say it's essentially Fundamentalist Christianity on steroids meets Lord of the Flies, it's a fairly chilling concept; particularly for the parents in attendance. There had been "killer kid" movies before, but they were either much tamer (Village of the Damned, The Omen, The Bad Seed) or relatively unseen (Devil Times Five, The Children, Bloody Birthday), but Children of the Corn got the best of both worlds in terms of exposure and bloodletting and became a low budget hit. It also has the added benefit of being somewhat insulated against criticism for the simple fact that, when something doesn't seem logically sound, it's easily explainable when you consider you're looking at a society run entirely by children. My only complaint is that, due to the reduction in budget, several excellent scenes had to be cut and compartmentalized into the collage of prophetic drawings made by the pint-sized seer during the opening credits, because actually seeing the kids lynch the local Minister and crucify the sheriff would have really upped the level of sadism and forced the audience to increasingly ask themselves, "what ELSE are these kids capable of?" A great concept nonetheless, even if we did get a cliffs notes version at times.
The acting is excellent, and thank cripes Linda Hamilton was cast here before The Terminator because, as you can imagine, her newfound stardom may have held some sway over whether or not she auditioned for the flick about the cult of corn-worshipping sadist moppets. Peter Horton's alright as the adult who always maintains his composure and remains unmoved by the horde of Little Rascals tryna slice 'im up into corned beef (although I think the screenwriter made him a little too stoic to the point that it diminishes the threat of the children), and R.G. Armstrong turns in another under-appreciated performance as the doomed shop mechanic, though the real stars of the movie are the kids. John Franklin and Courtney Gains make for a fantastic one-two punch as the fire and brimstone child preacher, Isaac, and the fanatical, sociopathic Malachai, until, ya know, the former fails the latter's purity test and gets shackled to a corn cob crucifix for bein' a disgustin' adult sympathizer. Robby Kiger and Anne Marie McEvoy are also likable as the "seen some shit but still clinging to humanity" siblings, Job and Sarah, but ultimately it's Franklin and Gains who carry the movie, and they're the ones everybody wants to meet at conventions.
Here's who matters and why: Peter Horton (Fade to Black), Linda Hamilton (Terminator 1, 2, 4, & 6, Bermuda Tentacles, King Kong Lives, TAG: The Assassination Game), R.G. Armstrong (Warlock 2, Predator, The Beast Within, Evilspeak, Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell, The Pack, The Car, Race with the Devil, Reflections of Murder, The Legend of Hillbilly John, and he was Lewis Vendredi on Friday the 13th: The Series), John Franklin (The Addams Family & Addams Family Values, Hell's Kitty, Monsterland, Python, Children of the Corn 666, Tammy and the T-Rex, Child's Play), Courtney Gains (Hellblazers, Await the Dawn, Candy Corn, Camp Cold Brook, Deadly Crush, Hell's Kitty, Urban Myths, The Funhouse Massacre, The House Across the Street, Mimesis, Raven, The Quiet Ones, Sibling Rivalry, Alien Encounter, Halloween 2007, King Cobra, Ratboy, Back to the Future), Robby Kiger (The Monster Squad), Anne Marie EcEvoy (Invitation to Hell), Julie Maddalena (To Die For), John Philbin (Return of the Living Dead, Zombie Farm, Moonbase, The Killing Jar, Martians Go Home, The New Kids), Mitch Carter (The First Power).
And the mainstream credits: Peter Horton (Gary Shepherd on Thirtysomething), Linda Hamilton (Catherine Chandler on Beauty and the Beast), R.G. Armstrong (Pruneface in Dick Tracy), Courtney Gains (Hans Klopek in The 'Burbs), Robby Kiger (Josh Fox on Crazy as a Fox).
The special effects are well executed on the practical side, with the more complex post-production bits coming off a bit cheesy. The dummy used for the car collision is a bit stiff on impact but rolls surprisingly naturally; the composite shot of the clouds abruptly rolling in when the corn god becomes displeased is nearly seamless; the slashed throat in the diner scene looks good; Isaac's conservative zombie makeup looks alright; the Bugs Bunny dirt monster plowin' through the ground looks pretty cool; the blood fluctuates between authentic and mildly vibrant, and there're a few impressive fireballs that really liven up what might otherwise amount to a weak climax. On the downside, the death of Isaac comes down to something resembling red television static slowly ascending his crucifix and consumes him before exploding, and the composite shot of the demonic red clouds rolling in over the midnight sacrifice look pretty unnatural as well, but that's kinda to be expected given the technological and budgetary limits in place at the time.
The shooting locations are superb, with neighboring Iowa standing in for Nebraska and perfectly depicting the small-town farming community of Gatlin. Principle photography took place in the bustling metropoli of Salix (population 429), Hornick (population 239), and Whiting (population 734), and although the highway scenes were filmed in California, the deserted Main Street, tiny church house, disused garage, diner, and all the abandoned-in-the-recent-past housing really sell the idea that the place was never exactly thriving, but has completely gone to hell with the loss of its adult population. There's a Last Man on Earth quality that pervades the flick in the early goings until the first signs of life begin to appear, at which time the atmosphere shifts to something even more sinister because the sense of isolation remains entirely intact, and yet it would be preferable were this unfortunate couple truly the last people on Earth. Places like this are easy to come by but costly and difficult to authentically create with artificial sets, and there's an intangible feeling that you can only get from these low to medium budget pictures that take the time to scout out real locations.
The soundtrack is very effective, and like Phantasm before it, centers itself around a single catchy track that diverges into numerous different variations to great success. The base tune is anchored by the piano and children's choral chanting, but introduces heavy strings during the more suspenseful moments of the film and breaks out the synthesizer when things get supernatural. Jonathan Elias composed the soundtrack, and although he went on to produce music for Vamp, Parents, Grave Secrets, and Leprechaun 2, this, his first film composition, is probably his best. He seems to spend most of his time composing for commercials these days and that's kind of a bummer because his music has always added a great deal of atmosphere to the movies in which they appear, and the genre could use more guys like him.
Overall, with the exception of some dated special effects, Children of the Corn is surprisingly competent on the technical front. And although it owes little more than its premise to Stephen King, it's probably the best movie adaptation of a King short story with the exception of The Mist, which, incidentally, carried the original bleak ending through to the film. Funny, that. In any event, CotC still holds up almost 40 years later, so if it's eluded you up to now be sure to check it out. Just don't go do anything silly like buyin' up all eight sequels, the remake, and the prequel sight unseen, 'cause that level of buyer's remorse could lead to permanent health problems.